State legislators have re-introduced a bill that would prohibit school districts and public universities from authorizing prior restraint of school-sponsored media.
The legislation is backed by Tom McHale, an English teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Raritan Township in Hunterdon County.
McHale resigned as adviser of the award-winning school newspaper The Lamp in 2013 after trying, but failing, to get the board to amend its policy that requires the administration's review of The Lamp's content prior to publication. He had held the post for a decade.
McHale, who is also a Garden State Scholastic Press Association executive board member, said he is aware of journalism students within the state self-censoring out of fear of administration backlash.
"Schools should be teaching kids to become responsible citizens," McHale said in a news release. "For many schools, that's part of their mission statement."
The legislation, re-introduced June 30, is co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Gail Phoebus (R-Sussex) and Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington). It aims to protect students from administrative censorship. The bill was originally introduced by an outgoing assemblywoman near the end of the 2014-15 session.
The legislation doesn't protect student expression that would be considered libelous or slanderous or that would constitute an "unwarranted invasion of privacy." Additionally, any expression that violates federal or state law or "incites students to create a clear and present danger" would not be protected under the legislation.
The bill would require school districts to adopt a written policy concerning student freedom of expression in compliance with the provisions of the bill.
The school board values its reputation more than the educational value of the Lamp to its students, student editors say.
The legislation has been assigned to the education committee where Singleton serves as vice chair. Singleton said he was inspired to advocate for student journalists after he watched legislation in favor of students' rights become law in Maryland. In April, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed a bill that will protect students' free-speech rights beginning Oct. 1.
"When I learned more about what they were doing, it made sense," Singleton said in a news release. "I wanted to add my name to that."
Singleton referenced a 2014 incident in Burlington County where newspaper adviser Bill Gurden was removed from his position at Pemberton Township High School. Principal Ida Smith also threatened to terminate journalism classes at the school after administrators previously stalled publication of multiple articles.
"(It's a) critically important issue to support journalists," Singleton said. "Supporting journalism in general is important to keep those of us in office accountable."
Singleton said he hopes to see the bill on the governor's desk before the session ends in 2018.
John Tagliareni, a co-organizer of the bill who spent 37 years as a newspaper adviser, said adviser turnover has become a problem because school administrators are increasingly becoming more sensitive and concerned about their school's image.
In addition to defending students' rights, the bill states that teachers and employees can't be "dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against" for protecting students' rights to expression.
"I like that wording," he said. "No one involved can be threatened."
Tagliareni said he isn't aware of any backlash from administrators who might oppose the bill. He said he expects the New Jersey Education Association to endorse the legislation. Hunterdon Central officials weren't immediately available for comment.
The passage of the bill is important because journalism students need to learn how to do their jobs responsibly with the guidance of an adviser, Tagliareni said.
"My point is, you don't stop the kids from learning," Tagliareni said. "The goal is to educate students. (The) best journalism that is out there isn't getting practiced like it should be. We have to just keep fighting."
Louis Crescitelli, Phoebus' chief of staff, said the assemblywoman decided to support the bill after meeting with members of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Garden State Scholastic Press Association.
"We hope it helps the journalism profession," Crescitelli said. Phoebus "takes her duty seriously to protect Constitutional rights."
Hunterdon Central's McHale said failing to educate students about exercising their First Amendment rights in an ethical manner while they are learning can have grave consequences beyond high school. He said he believes students who might be censored in high school could be more likely to self-censor and not exercise their First Amendment rights in their entirety.
"So to me, (supporting the legislation is) important for anyone who cares about education," McHale said.
McHale said the next step is to gather support for the bill from students, teachers and the public. He said Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) is expected to introduce the bill to the Senate in the fall. The Assembly is out of session for the summer and is scheduled to resume in September.